Ahh, the rubbish hero. When did this become the key trope in YA fantasy? Oh wait, I know. It was Harry Potter.
Look, I understand that there would be little fun in someone discovering they have magic powers and mastering them straightaway. I understand that, for most of the characters I’m going to discuss here, developing the ability to actually use their abilities is a fundamental part of their story. I completely grasp all these things. It is just that, on reading anything taking place in a magical setting, I now groan audibly every time someone who previously had no powers suddenly discovers they do and proceeds to spend the next four hundred pages complaint about how crap they are at using them.
Take Amy Gumm, from Danielle Paige’s Dorothy Must Die series. First of all, let me
make it clear that I really enjoy these books; I dig the inversion of Oz into a dystopian horror-show and Paige’s writing has really made me re-examine L. Frank Baum’s original novel as well as the film. But there is something ever so slightly tiresome about Amy, who is pretty whingy at the best of times, complaining about how rubbish she is at magic.
How about Alina from Shadow and Bone? She’s grown up in awe of the Grisha, the magical people who populate Leigh Bardugo’s writing, and suddenly finds out she’s one of them. She has a reasonably cool power that is something to do with creating light (okay, I’ll admit I can’t completely remember what Alina’s power is all about. I’ll Google it), which is obviously super-important in a world where darkness appears to be taking over. But like Amy, she spends way too much time complaining about her teachers and how completely unreasonable they are to try and, you know, teach her stuff. Seriously, people, just make notes when you’re in a lesson. It’s really not that complicated.
If you’ve read Red Queen (and Glass Sword too), you’ve probably been shouting the words “MARE BARROW” for the last five minutes, possibly while rocking back and forwards and shuddering. Yes, Mare is the standard-bearer for being rubbish at magic and being in a mood about it. Elsewhere, I’ve gently suggested that Red Queen is basically The Hunger Games with less appealing characters, but a major point on which it diverts in its use of magic. The world of Norta is divided into Reds (normal people with poorly constructed houses) and Silvers (kings and rich people and stuff) who have a dizzying array of magical powers. Early in Red Queen, Mare discovers she has somehow got magic powers too, involving something that doesn’t actually seem particularly helpful. Mare spends an inordinate amount of time bitching about being taught anything, including how to fight (oh wait, this bit is like The Hunger Games too then) and is too absorbed in moaning about everything to actually learn how to do anything constructive with her powers.
I am going to forgive Simon Snow from Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On for being a bit shit at magic because, firstly, that’s kind of the point, and secondly, the whole thing is parodying Harry Potter and he is the original crap magician. Also, the other stuff going on in Carry On, principally Simon’s relationship with Baz, is much more interesting anyway. Mercifully, Carry On picks up Simon’s story towards the end of his magical journey, so most of his attempts to master his powers are elided anyway, and we get to see the more interesting aspects of the story, like Simon accepting that he is rubbish at magic.
The thing which, I think, annoys me most about this over-used trope is that, however much these rubbish magicians struggle with their powers, it seems to be the case that, as soon as they are threatened, they suddenly and unaccountably manage to use them effectively. This makes no sense. I recently read a YA fantasy book which will remain nameless to avoid spoilers, and at the exact moment when I thought ‘I am so pleased that this book is avoiding the annoying oh-wait-I-am-magic-now situation,’ that is exactly what happened and I wanted to scream. Also, usually people are not good at things the first time they try them. I, for example, am a horrible snowboarder. The
first time I made my daughter’s Cheshire Cat birthday cake, it was a disaster. I do not know the words to Taylor Swift songs the first time I hear them. But I practised these things (except the snowboarding, which I gave up instantly because it was a horrible way to spend time) and I got good at them. I did not complain about having to do this, because I am not a moron.
Please, YA fantasy authors of the world, write a book about a character who discovers they have magic powers and then works really hard in an uncomplaining fashion to master them. Perhaps they use Powerpoint to give useful presentations, or we see them making revision notes on Post-Its or something. But, for the sake of my sanity, can we just have one book in which nobody is shocked to discover they are magic and then moans a lot about not being instantly good at things. Please and thank you.